This is the eighth in a series in which we examine this fascinating Bible book. You can catch up with the previous articles at
ONE OF THE more interesting methods of establishing whether a set of accounts provides an accurate record is to compare the various accounts and see whether they correspond with one another. The important comparisons are those which concern tiny details; these are called ‘undesigned coincidences’.
An undesigned coincidence occurs where irrelevant details in two or more independent accounts fit together to provide a picture which is otherwise not present in any of the accounts. The point about coincidences like this is that they are very difficult to manufacture. They appear in accurately reported factual accounts, but they seldom appear in fiction. It is very difficult for someone who was not a part of the action concerned to include undesigned coincidences in their account.
Acts and Paul’s Letters
There are a large number of connections between the book of Acts and the letters of Paul. This shows that the letters and Acts fit together in a manner which it would be difficult to manage for someone trying to produce a forgery.
However, while these connections are good evidence of authenticity they are not really undesigned coincidences; they are not sufficiently insignificant to qualify. Real undesigned coincidences should have the qualities of coherence, insignificance and independence. There are many such examples in Acts and the letters. The following are some examples.
Timothy came from Lystra; he was baptised before Paul arrived there on his second missionary journey.
Then he [Paul] came to Derbe and Lystra. And behold, a certain disciple was there, named Timothy, the son of a certain Jewish woman who believed, but his father was Greek
Timothy then continued on the journey with Paul, and from time to time undertook missions for him. Much later Paul sent Timothy to Ephesus to deal with problems in the church there. Paul writes to him in
2 Timothy and produces details which are consistent with the Acts picture:
… And that from childhood you have known the Holy Scriptures, which are able to make you wise for salvation through faith which is in Christ Jesus (2 Timothy 3:15).
Here we find that Timothy knew the ‘scriptures’—a term which would probably refer to the Old Testament of the Bible (as the New Testament was still not complete) —and had done so since he was a child. Timothy would only have had access to the scriptures as a child if at least one of his parents was Jewish. This, of course, is what we read in Acts 16:1.
In the same chapter Paul mentions the persecution that he experienced on his journey:
But you have carefully followed my doctrine, manner of life, purpose, faith, longsuffering, love, perseverance, persecutions, afflictions, which happened to me at Antioch, at Iconium, at Lystra—what persecutions I endured. And out of them all the Lord delivered me
(2 Timothy 3:10–11).
Paul lists the cities in the order in which we’re told he visited them on his first missionary journey (in Acts 13 and 14). On this journey Paul visited Antioch, Iconium, Lystra and Derbe, but only suffered persecution in Antioch (Acts 13:50), Iconium (Acts 14:5) and Lystra (Acts 14:19). There was no persecution at Derbe. The list of cities where Paul suffered persecution matches the record of Acts.
Again, the detail is very minor and we would hardly notice it if we were not looking for it. Nevertheless, the correspondence is very good. This is the hallmark of an accurate record.
The Church in Troas
Troas is the subject of another undesigned coincidence in Acts and the letters. On Paul’s second missionary journey he stopped in Troas (Acts 16:8–10), but there is no record of him having founded a congregation there at that time.
However, when he returned from his third missionary journey (Acts 20:6–12) there was a considerable congregation in Troas.
2 Corinthians mentions another visit of Paul to Troas:
Furthermore, when I came to Troas to preach Christ’s gospel, and a door was opened to me by the Lord, I had no rest in my spirit, because I did not find Titus my brother; but taking my leave of them, I departed for Macedonia
(2 Corinthians 2:12–13).
The wording of this passage, “a door was opened to me by the Lord”, suggests that Paul’s efforts at proclaiming the Gospel were successful on this occasion and a congregation was formed in Troas.
The occasion of this event is covered briefly in Acts 20:1; however, there is no mention of a stay in Troas. In Acts 19:22 we find that Paul had sent some of his companions on ahead, but Titus is not included in the list.
It is clear from Acts that a congregation was formed in Troas between the second missionary journey and the end of the third missionary journey, but Acts gives no details. The detail of the founding of the congregation appears in 2 Corinthians and it is fully consistent with the Acts account. The detail is insignificant; we would not notice it unless we were looking for it. This is a fully-fledged undesigned coincidence.
As Far as Corinth
In his second letter to the church in Corinth Paul indicates that they are the furthest point the Gospel has yet reached:
For we are not overextending ourselves (as though our authority did not extend to you), for it was to you that we came with the gospel of Christ (2 Corinthians 10:14).
He goes on in verse 16 to state his intention “to preach the Gospel in the regions beyond you”. This fits very well the picture that Acts gives of Paul’s third missionary journey. 2 Corinthians must have been written in 55ad, shortly after 1 Corinthians, after Paul had left Ephesus and was travelling towards Corinth. At the point when the letter was written Paul had only reached Macedonia, but he was to go on to Illyricum shortly after. By the time he reached Corinth he had visited Illyricum, and he says in his letter to the Romans:
From Jerusalem and round about to Illyricum I have fully preached the gospel of Christ (Romans 15:19).
The visit to Illyricum is not mentioned in Acts; it only appears in Romans, where it is easily overlooked. So we have confirmation that Corinth was the most distant point that Paul reached on his second missionary journey; the letters of 2 Corinthians and Romans provide extra incidental information. Again, we have an undesigned coincidence.
Paul’s Day Job
Paul followed a common practice among Jewish rabbis of having a trade by which he could support himself alongside his work as a teacher. There are numerous incidental references to this in Acts and his letters.
He wrote 1 Corinthians from Ephesus. While he was in Ephesus he worked to earn the money to support himself.
To the present hour we both hunger and thirst, and we are poorly clothed, and beaten, and homeless. And we labour, working with our own hands (1 Corinthians 4:11–12).
In Corinth, he met a couple of tentmakers named Aquila and Priscilla.
So, because he was of the same trade, he stayed with them and worked; for by occupation they were tentmakers. (Acts 18:3).
Again, he said to the elders of the church in Ephesus, “Yes, you yourselves know that these hands have provided for my necessities, and for those who were with me” (Acts 20:34).
The coincidence is clear, but the accounts are independent of one another and consider the matter to be of little importance. Another undesigned coincidence.
Paul and the Law
One of the main themes of Paul’s letters is that salvation is not dependent on keeping the Jewish Law. However, Acts records three instances in which he observed the rituals of the Law:
Acts 16:3—Paul had Timothy circumcised to satisfy the Jews in the area where he lived.
Acts 18:18—Paul shaved his head at the end of a Nazirite vow.
Acts 21:23–26—Paul joined in with Nazarites at the Temple in Jerusalem to show his respect for the Law.
The comment from one of his letters which illuminates this behaviour is this:
To the Jews I became as a Jew, that I might win Jews; to those who are under the law, as under the law, that I might win those who are under the law; to those who are without law, as without law (not being without law toward God, but under law toward Christ), that I might win those who are without law (1 Corinthians 9:20–21).
Again, we are looking at an obscure point which is established by looking at independent accounts.
What it Means
The existence of these, and many more, undesigned coincidences in Acts and the letters of the New Testament shows that Acts is a reliable account of the events it narrates, and that it matches the letters down to tiny details. Paul really did travel around the ancient world proclaiming the Gospel and writing letters. He really did visit congregations of Christians within a few years of Christ’s resurrection. And he really did go from being a diehard persecutor of Christianity to one of the main proclaimers of the Gospel. This is further evidence that the New Testament is an accurate record.